top of page

From a potato farmer to the final Western States 100 Golden Hour finisher

The final finisher of the 2023 Western States 100 was Jennifer St. Amand.

By Henry Howard

Often when young men and women join the military, they tap into and discover their potential. That may be an MOS (military occupation specialty, or job) or leadership ability in challenging circumstances or bravery in a time of crisis.

For Jennifer St. Amand, who grew up mostly in Canada as a hockey fan, she also discovered she was a fast runner.

After moving to Maine and graduating from high school at 17, St. Amand joined the military. She ran a two-mile fitness test during basic training in 16:17.

“I wasn't even really trying too hard because I didn't know what I was capable of yet,” she recalled, noting she started as a tank mechanic. “It wasn't that crazy fast, but at the time the drill sergeants freaked out about it, saying, ‘You're really great!’ And because you think the world of them, what I took home was that I had some sort of unique ability in that department.”

Now, 30 years later, St. Amand is a staff sergeant and recruiter for the Army National Guard in Minnesota.

Jennifer and her son are both in the Minnesota National Guard.

“I remember just how inspiring those drill sergeants were for me,” she says. “If it wasn't for that impact, that little bit of attention — most of the attention they give you in basic training is negative — but that little tiny nugget is what fueled me and kind of drove me. It made me feel like I was unique and special somehow. From then on, I was really trying when it came to running.

The motivation she took from her drill sergeants not led her to her own leadership role in the military, it sent her on a journey where she won races, embraced the running community and inspired onlookers at the 2023 Western States where she crossed the finish line 21 seconds before the Golden Hour expired.

Life on the potato farm

St. Amand is an American citizen even though she lived in Canada with her grandparents on their 3,000-acre potato farm during much of her childhood. From when she was 8 years old, she worked on the farm with 11 of her siblings and cousins.

“I didn't realize until I joined the military and left, how unique a lifestyle it was,” she says. “We had our own village, basically. We had our own co-op. I just thought that was kind of normal to grow up in northern New Brunswick, which is similar to northern Maine, where there's not a lot of people. It's totally weird now.”

Transition time

Her first Army duty station was in Fort Carson, Colo., where she ran a 10:54 for the two-miler.

“I started to feel really good about my running,” she says. “I was running fast.”

On her second deployment to Europe, she was in logistics, coordinating troops downrange.

“I was able to train for my first marathon,” she says, adding that she used Hal Higdon's online training plan for beginner runners. “I would go run for time. It would say something like, ‘Run for one to two hours.’ So I'd run an hour out on the trails in Germany and I'd run back. I never fueled, I never brought water. I finished my first marathon. I remember thinking it was real strange when people were eating and drinking water on the course. I'm like, 'Ok I'll try that, too.’”

Jennifer St. Amand experienced the highs and lows of Western States in 2023.

The family moved to Minnesota in 2004. St. Amand did her first trail race in Rochester, Minn., the Chester Woods 10 mile (now the Mason Run). “I just did it for fun and placed. And I was thinking, 'Oh wow! I wasn't even really trying that hard. What if I actually tried?’”

St. Amand then moved into her marathon phase, placing in races and trying to finish in under three hours. A mentor, Thom Woo, warned her about ultras. “He kept telling me, ‘Jen, if you start running ultras, you're going to slow down. Just keep doing the marathons.’”

So she focused on fast 5Ks, 10Ks and marathons. Eventually all the road running caused an injury in 2016. After an MRI, she was advised to take some time off and let her knee heal.

“That seems like a crazy thing to say to someone like me,” she recalls with a laugh. “So I took some time off, and then I ran a 50K. And I won it. The shorter stuff on the road was just a bit too intense.”

All in for ultras

St. Amand then focused on pushing her limits, going up in distance and eventually doing her first 100-miler. But first came Surf the Murph, her first 50-miler.

“I felt like a complete badass when I finished it,” she remembers. “It just feels so amazing, the fact that the human body can do that. I felt great at the end of 50 miles. I felt like I could keep going because I ran a smart race and it felt so good.”

“At my first marathon, I did not feel like a badass,” she admits. “I didn't think I'd ever do another one because at that time I didn't know of anyone else doing multiple ones. It was like a once in a lifetime thing. It felt more like an accomplishment but now it's done. The 50-miler felt like a huge break in what's possible in a person, in your body.”

In September 2017, she completed her first 100-miler in just over 31 hours at the Superior 100, which features 40,000 feet of elevation change.

“That's an amazing race, it's pretty hard,” she says. “The worst part about it is all these rocks and roots that you're running on the entire time. I wouldn't say it's not runnable, it's runnable, you got to take your time in some places.”

The following year she did the Kettle Moraine 100 in Wisconsin. “I took 10 hours off my time from Superior when I finished that one. That was pretty crazy. I mean, in what sport could you ever take literally 10 hours off your time? So I got a sub-24 hour finish there, and I think I came in third overall female, but first masters, as well.”

‘Excited and scared’ all at once

It did not take her long to chase her Western States dream. She entered the drawing with one ticket after finishing Superior. Then the routine began. Achieve a qualifier. Enter the drawing. Miss out. Repeat.

With 16 tickets in the drawing, it was finally her turn when she was selected at the drawing in December 2022.

“I've watched that drawing every year until this last year,” she admits. “I was kind of to the point where, ‘I'm probably not going to get picked anyway.’ There's some other races, like Leadville, I've been trying to get into that one, too, and never get picked. But I don't really freak out about it too much, or get too sad about it.”

On the day of the drawing, she was at work and interviewing a potential recruit. After setting him up with a test she noticed her phone was blowing up. “People were telling me, ‘Oh, you got picked.’ I was over the moon. I was just so excited and scared at the same time.”

Then her thoughts turned to training and realized she’s have to start training early — during a Minnesota winter. “It's a whole different way to train.”

Jennifer St. Amand was drawn in the Western States lottery with 16 tickets.

Heat training in Minnesota

The 2023 Western States course threw a wicked one-two punch at runners: a snow-packed welcome at the start and a long stretch of shadeless course due to the wildfires. (From the archives: What we learned at Western States in 2023.)

“I was ready for the heat, because that is what I expected,” she says in what was one of the cooler Western States years. “I expected it to be way hotter than here in Minnesota. I made sure that I was acclimated to the heat. The snow, no one is ready for that. Even though I live here in Minnesota, we don't run on that kind of snow. You might slog through some miles on the road in slow, slushy stuff. That is not what the first 30 miles of that was. I can't even explain it. That was insanity. People were hitting, sliding down in shorts on snow. And it was over and over like that. And you were sliding into people like you're bowling, like bowling pins. You wanted to avoid injury. There was blood in the snow when I was running. It was treacherous.

St. Amand chose a patient approach.

“I'm a pretty competitive person, but I just knew if I wanted to make it beyond this stuff later, I really needed to be careful here,” she says. “Because I've done that. I've injured myself, I've wrecked my ankle and had to run 40 miles on it, a messed up ankle, before. So I was like, 'Nah, I'm just going to take it easy here and see what I got later.”

While Minnesota is not known for its hot weather, St. Amand says it does get humid. As a mom with four kids who works full-time, the training was challenging.

She focused her training runs during the heat of the day during her lunch break. She also went to Whitewater State Park, which is “very, very gnarly. You can get some good elevation there.”

St. Amand prioritized hard and long workouts, sometimes running on gravel roads with a huge steep grade for hours. “Just up and down, up and down, trying to train my quads. And I did that in the heat of the day. It was dry, dusty and terrible.”

The Western States Golden Hour.

Race day

Western States was her 10th 100-miler. She had trained well and had a good crew — Sarah Chapman, Alex Bartley and Brian Mansky — in her corner. But it was the first time she felt nervous at a hundo in quite a while.

“I feel like Western was really unknown for me because of the variables at elevation,” she says. “I know how I do at elevation, it's not great.”

During the race she had a seemingly comfortable cushion ahead of the cutoff, 60 to 90 minutes or so.

“After that first 50K I came in and I felt really nervous,” she says. “I normally don't worry about finishing, because I've always done really well for the most part. Because I had entered for so many years, I just wanted to really experience everything that Western was about. And everybody kept saying slow down.”

Then doubt crept in.

“What if something happens and I don't finish?” she wondered. “What accelerated that for me is I was just worried that my crew — and I know I'm not the only person like that, a lot of people worried about that — like my crew and pacers, I wanted them to get time on the course. I wanted to make sure they were able to pace and have their experience. Because they had come out all that way with me, and I felt like it rested on me a little to make sure that they were going to be able to enjoy themselves, too. So I might have told them, 'Don't be expecting anything fast here, readjust your expectations, guys. I'm just enjoying myself. I'm just letting you know I'm not going to go very fast.’”

The water crossing brought on a mix of relief and worry.

“My running felt good, but energy-wise, something went awry with my nutrition or something,” she says. “I just didn't have the energy I normally have. It could have been the elevation, too, playing with me and being not used to that.”

Getting worse before it gets better

Reflecting back, she believes her nutrition was off since the race start.

The heat and hill training in Minnesota paid off for St. Amand.

“I kept trying to force food from the 50K point on, which is not out of the ordinary,” she says. “I don't have to eat that much before the marathon. Like I'm eating a little bit of calories here and there. I usually just take in Jolly Ranchers, just a slow drip of calories, and just make sure I'm good on electrolytes and water.”

There are long distances between aid stations during the first 50K. St. Amand carried her water and then switched over to handhelds after that point. “I didn't want to carry all of that stuff, especially going up those hills, it's just hard on the back for me. Then it got worse.”

While she kept hydrating, food was completing unappetizing. She experienced a similar situation during training.

“It just gets to the point where I'll keep drinking water and I literally almost get sick of water,” she explains. “Forget food. Food just becomes unappetizing. It's pretty typical, I think. Although I never had this issue until maybe these last two years of running. I didn't throw up, but nothing was appetizing, I couldn't keep water flowing, I tried taking calories in and it was just disgusting.”

Overnight, it got worse. Her pacer suggested she have some Maurten gels with caffeine.

“Honestly the consistency of that thing, the consistency of that shit is terrible,” she says. “I can't even put it into words, it's just this huge massive lump. I had to force it down my throat. My body tried to reject it for a good five minutes. I had to force it down to keep it down. But I kept it down, and then I started feeling a little better for a while.”

With a brief caffeine buzz, St. Amand maintained a 90-minute cutoff cushion. Still, she was worried throughout the day and night.

“The thing that was killing me in that race was the uphills,” she says. “The first Devil's Thumb climb is two miles, and I swear to you there's hardly any switchback, it's all straight up. That's what it feels like. It was 30-minute miles. You're doing almost baby steps up that thing, at least I was.”

'How bad are the uphills?'

At the Quarry Road aid station, near mile 91, St. Amand saw a Minnesotan there, seven-time Western States winner Scott Jurek.

“I actually didn't know it was him at first. I was so focused. We come into the aid station and I knew I was chasing time, and I just had to got to the bathroom. I asked him, ‘Where's the port-o-potty?' He was like, ‘It's over there.’”

Jurek told her all she needed to do was maintain an 18-minute pace and she would finish. Thinking she could knock out 15-minute miles gave her a sense of relief. Until she asked a question.

“How bad are the uphills?"

"Well you got to go two miles up."


St. Amand was confident she could run 14-minute miles. But hills were another matter.

“I couldn't. I just could not do it up the hills. I'd have to stop halfway up the hill to take a breather. Running up at this point of the race, it felt immense. I don't know how else to say it, I just did the best I could. I went as fast as I could freaking go.”

Sarah Chapman, her final pacer, escorted her the final five miles.

St. Amand battled the heat — “my perception was that it was super hot, probably because I was just overly taxed. My systems were all going haywire” — and the hills.

The final push

Finally, they reached Robie's Point, just 1.3 miles from the finish line.

“I lost track of time at this point. I stopped looking because it didn't matter to me anymore. I know that sounds weird, but it was like if I don't finish in time, I'm still finishing. I didn't care. I came here to finish, even if I got 30 hours one minute, or two minutes, or whatever it ended up being, I was still finished.”

Jennifer St. Amand's finish at the 2023 Western States was one of the most memorable.

She was greeted by a swarm of volunteers, asking what she needed.

“They started dumping water and sponges. It was crazy! I'd never seen a race where so many people were invested in you finishing. Of course, I didn't know what was going on. I didn't realize people were tracking me, with a drone and everything else until after the race was over. I had no idea. All of these people, I don't even know who they are, to this day, they were sponging me and they were like, ‘You go to keep going.’ And everyone was screaming at me, ‘You got to follow your pacer. Watch her feet.’ And they were telling her, ‘Get ahead of her, have her chase you.’”

On the way toward the track at Placer High School, around 30 people started running and encouraging her, screaming, ‘Just go!’ And then of course, there's one more hill. Are you freaking kidding me? I felt like I was sprinting. And normally I could probably sprint a sub-6 minute. I think I was going a 10-minute pace, all out. I just didn't have it anymore.”

St. Amand kept pushing as her posse kept running and screaming encouragement.

On the track heading toward the finish line, she saw the clock. It read 29:59:01.

“There's the media, and everybody is there screaming at you. It was so loud. I knew I was not going to let these people down.”

She did not let anyone down, crossing the line as the final official finisher just 21 seconds ahead of the cutoff. (From the archives: Gunhild Swanson’s amazing Golden Hour finish.)

“I immediately collapsed and was just sobbing,” she recalls. “Everybody was. I've never seen that. I couldn't believe how many people even cared. I didn't know anything about the history of Western States and the Golden Hour, I knew nothing of those things. I focused just on my own individual race the entire time.”

Western States was a different race for St. Amand. She focused on experiencing the race, not being competitive in it. As it turned out, she experienced just about the allotted time for the entire race.

“This was the first 100 where I was just going to slow down and just enjoy this entire race and then at the end it's super dramatic. Why was I being so dramatic? If I had stopped at another aid station just a little longer or any multitude of things that could have happened, we wouldn't be talking right now.”

Speed drill

Name: Jennifer St. Amand

Number of years running: 31 years

How many miles a week do you typically run: 35-100 depending on where I am at during training.

Point of pride: Winning Lean Horse 100

Favorite race distance: 100 miles and 2 mile (for the Army).

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Pickles and pickle juice.

Favorite piece of gear: “My Garmin! It's a love-hate relationship. I love that it tracks my sleep and recovery but I hate that, too. Keeps me honest!”

Who inspires you: “My inspiration comes from my recruits! They often have to overcome so much to make their dreams come true but also all of the women who blazed the trails before me.”

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “Too difficult to narrow down to one song.”

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “I am made to do hard things, I have already done them.”

Where can other runners connect or follow you:


bottom of page